28 September 2021

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Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable
– Christopher Howse: ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’

Cosas de España/Galiza

To my great surprise, the British Ambassador to Spain has said there are 1,500 Brits in the Galician city of La Coruña. Where are they all, I wondered – working for Zara’s parent company Inditex? Other sources suggest these rather more credible numbers by province and major city:-

La Coruña 996. La Coruña 243 (So, rather fewer than 1,500)

Pontevedra 693. Vigo 210; Pontevedra 72: 

Ourense 115. Ourense 42

Lugo 406 Lugo 70

In my barrio of Poio, across the river from Pontevedra, there are said to be 12 Brits including me. TBH, I only know 1 of the other 11.

Perhaps, as with the Catholic Church, you stay on the embassy’s books until you get a certificate of deletion from the equivalent of a bishop. Meaning the ambassador’s total of 1,500 is as wrong as the Pope’s number of 2 billion Catholics.

In another fascinating development, the EU has said it was illegal for the Galician Xunta to extend our AP9 toll road concession in 2013 without putting it out to tender. This is said to mean we can now all make a claim for repayment of tolls since then. And the advice is that we keep all evidence of future payments. I had to laugh. Believing a future case can be won and money returned to thousands of us must surely rank as the pinnacle of optimism.

Some folk think that Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) was really the lord of a castle in nearby Soutomaior, having been born here in Poio. This chap was one Pedro Madruga (Peter the Early Riser) and it’s reported that DNA tests are being done on his remains so they can be checked against others being done on CC’s descendants. Will we ever get a definitive answer to this perpetual question? 

Germany

Some folk think that Angela Merkel’s long reign has, on balance, been  detrimental to both Germany and the EU –  in particular to its southern members, including Spain. Below is one such negative take, from her erstwhile admirers at The Economist. Plus a longer interim assessment from The Times

The EU

The Corner gives us 2 topical columns:-

1. What’s behind the high energy prices in Europe.

2. The Commission rules out major regulatory actions to combat rising energy prices. Only Spain is doing this.

France

You have to wonder why France (and Spain) are resisting the demand from Brussels that they put cameras on the masts of the vessels in their vast fishing fleets. Some of which are known to switch off their locator mechanisms. I believe camera-equipped drones are the main alternative.

Finally  . . .

Spider Tack is an adhesive, originally developed to give ironmen greater purchase on the atlas stones they pick up in competitions. More recently, it was used by baseball pitchers to give greater opportunities to spin the ball. As a result, batting averages fell, while pitching averages rose. But now it’s been banned and leading pitchers have found it impossible to explain why. But I guess we know.

Note: If you’ve landed here looking for info on Galicia or Pontevedra, try here

ARTICLES

1. The mess Merkel leaves behind: The successor to Germany’s much-admired chancellor will face big unresolved problems: The Economist

Only otto von bismarck and Helmut Kohl served longer as Germany’s chancellor than Angela Merkel has. Bismarck forged an empire, and invented Europe’s first public-pension and health-care systems along the way. Kohl oversaw the reunification of East and West Germany and agreed to the replacement of the beloved Deutschmark with the euro.

Mrs Merkel’s achievements are more modest. In her 16 years in the chancellery she has weathered a string of crises, from economic to pandemic. Her abilities as a consensus-forger have served her country and Europe well. But her government has neglected too much, nationally and internationally. Germany has got away with it, for now; the country is prosperous and stable. Yet trouble is brewing. And as Mrs Merkel prepares to leave office when a new government forms after an election this weekend, admiration for her steady leadership should be mixed with frustration at the complacency she has bred.

The list of neglected issues is long (see our Special report). Germany looks like a purring luxury car; pop the bonnet, though, and the signs of neglect are plain to see. The public sector has failed to invest adequately or wisely, falling behind its peers in building infrastructure, especially the digital sort. This hampers not just whizzy new tech firms, but every other company, too. It also makes government less effective, a problem exacerbated by a failure to hire enough staff. Penny-pinching is hard-wired into the state. In 2009, on Mrs Merkel’s watch, Germany hobbled itself with a constitutional amendment that makes it illegal to run more than a minute deficit. With interest rates so low, sensible governments ought to have been borrowing for investment, not fainting at the first spot of red ink.

Germany’s most severe domestic problem is a failure to reform its pension system. Germans are ageing fast, and the baby-boomers will place an even heavier burden on the budget later this decade as they retire. On climate change, Germany has also been sluggish, and still emits more carbon per head than any other big eu country, not helped by Mrs Merkel’s shutdown of Germany’s nuclear industry after the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011.

In Europe, where German influence matters most, Mrs Merkel’s reluctance to wield it has been especially disappointing. The eu has not grappled sufficiently with the weakness of its indebted southern members. Only during the pandemic did it create a financial instrument that lets the eu issue jointly guaranteed debt, and dispense some of the cash as grants, rather than yet more loans. But this was designed as a one-off. Worse, the “stability” rules that will force countries back into austerity to shrink their stocks of debt are ready to revive, unless amended. Germany, always the most powerful voice at the​ EU​ table, should have argued harder for a more sensible approach.

In ​EU foreign policy, Germany could and should have been doing more to force a quicker adjustment to a less comfortable new world. China is an increasingly challenging economic and strategic rival, Russia an unpredictable threat and America a distracted and uncertain ally. Yet Germany has dithered. Despite recent increases, it spends too little on defence. It cosies up to Beijing in the hope of better trading terms. It is giving Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, a chokehold over European energy supplies by backing the new Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline which, as it happens, makes landfall in Mrs Merkel’s own constituency. It has fallen to others, principally France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, to make the case for Europe to do more.

Which German candidate, though, could do better than Mrs Merkel? The polls suggest that Germany is set for a messy new parliament, with no single party, or even two, able to form a government. Instead, some sort of ideologically incoherent three-way coalition is on the cards—one that, by combining high-spending greens and pro-business liberals, may struggle to agree on anything ambitious.

This is another symptom of Merkelian complacency. Comfortable, cautious Germans seem uninterested in serious debate about the future. Crisis-management has become a substitute for initiative. Candidates have no incentive to highlight their country’s looming problems. The result has been one of the least substantive campaigns for decades: all about the horse-race and not about the issues.

Of the possible outcomes, two seem most likely. One is a coalition headed by Mrs Merkel’s party, the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister-party (the cdu/csu), led by Armin Laschet. The other is a coalition led by Olaf Scholz, of the Social Democrats (spd), who is Germany’s finance minister. In either case, the coalition would be joined by the Greens and by the pro-business Free Democrats. Both outcomes will have serious shortcomings, but of the two, The Economist narrowly prefers the second: a “traffic-light” coalition, headed by Mr Scholz.

That is because the cdu/csu, frankly, has blown it. Sixteen years in power has been enough. The party has run out of ideas and drive, as its decision to choose the gaffe-prone and uninspiring Mr Laschet for chancellor makes clear. An affable lightweight, he has run a dismal campaign, and is predicted to lead his team to its worst result since the second world war. The polls say that Mr Scholz is preferred by twice as many voters.

The tug from the left

Are they right, though? There are reasons to hope so, but also plenty to fear. Mr Scholz has been an effective finance minister. The German people trust him. He is better placed than a cdu chancellor would be to work with the Greens on climate change. The problem is that although he belongs to the business-friendly wing of his party, the spd is stuffed with left-wingers. They may try to drag him further in their direction than the Free Democrats will wear and enterprise can comfortably bear.

The world should expect the coalition talks to last for months, poleaxing European politics while they drag on. And at the end of it all, Germany may well end up with a government that fails to get much done. That is the mess Mrs Merkel has left behind. ■

2. Angela Merkel leaves the stage with her legacy in doubt. Providing reassurance in times of crises has been the hallmark of a long stint in charge: Oliver Moody. The Tiomes

A strange mood has hung over Germany since the start of the election campaign six months ago: nostalgia for an age that is not yet quite over.

As she prepares to leave office, Angela Merkel’s approval rating stands at an almost hagiographic 64%. The politicians duking it out to succeed her have done their utmost to emulate her, even copying her gestures and turns of phrase. She is perhaps the only western leader of the 21st century to have been missed by a third of her electorate while still in charge. The basic reason for this affection is simple and has little to do with her legislative accomplishments. While Merkel does have reforms to her name — the minimum wage, gay marriage, the abolition of national service, one of the world’s strictest social media laws, the prospective end of the coal industry 17 years from now — they have rarely featured in her subsequent election campaigns and were often passed at the instigation of her coalition partners. The true source of her popularity is the sense of reassurance she projects. 

Germany has spent a long century in the punishing spin cycle of history: unification, imperial hubris, military defeat, hyperinflation, Nazism, division and reunification. Most of its voters have had their fill of drama and drastic ideas. A cynical observer might say they have had enough of politics, too. They tend to value peace, stability, prosperity, solid government and incremental change. For the past 16 years Merkel, 67, has delivered at least three of those things. Like Helmut Schmidt, her perennially popular Social Democratic (SPD) predecessor from 1974 to 1982, she is primarily remembered in Germany as a “crisis chancellor” who more or less kept the ship of state on course through rough waters. Her longevity is a feat in itself. The chancellor’s time in power has been defined above all by three tests: the financial turmoil in the eurozone from 2009, the influx of migrants in 2015 and, latterly, the pandemic. How well she has mastered these tests is a question of perspective. Viewed through the narrow lens of Germany’s national interest, Merkel dealt with the eurozone crisis admirably. She faced down the powerful fiscal conservatives in her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), who would rather have seen Greece drop out of the single currency than commit German taxpayers’ money to a bailout. The euro held together where it might have unravelled, and in the end Germany’s banks even turned a modest profit. Yet the rescue came at a heavy cost for Greece and some of the eurozone’s other southern members, which had to make deep cuts to their public sectors and are still coming to terms with their economic scarring.

Merkel’s second crisis was her toughest. In September 2015 she unilaterally opted out of one of the EU’s asylum rules, allowing Syrian citizens unimpeded entry into her country. More than 800,000 migrants, including many non-Syrians, crossed into Germany that year alone. At first a majority of Germans applauded this policy as a brave humanitarian gesture but public opinion has since turned against it. The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party, founded two years earlier in protest against Merkel’s eurozone policies, was galvanised and soon had a foothold in every state parliament. In December 2016 Anis Amri, a failed asylum seeker from Tunisia who had pledged allegiance to Islamic State, drove a lorry into a busy Berlin Christmas market, killing 12 people and injuring 56. Since then refugees have carried out more than a dozen smaller attacks: an American tourist murdered with a knife in Dresden, three motorcyclists rammed with a car on a Berlin motorway, a spate of stabbings in central Würzburg. For now it is too soon to judge Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis without falling back on one’s own political prejudices. So far about half the 1.2 million asylum seekers who arrived since the start of 2015 have obtained jobs. Just under two thirds say they have learnt to speak at least an “adequate” level of German. The country is certainly in need of all the young workers it can get. Fully integrating the new Germans into society, however, may take generations.

During the pandemic Merkel has often found herself playing the role of Cassandra. She repeatedly failed to convince regional governors to tighten their coronavirus restrictions. The fiasco peaked in April with a hasty late-night decision to create two extra Easter bank holidays from scratch and turn the long weekend into an impromptu lockdown. Hours later Merkel admitted that the idea was unrealistic and issued a televised apology to the German public. Overall, though, Germany still has one of the lowest per capita Covid-19 death rates in Europe, nearly 50% less than Britain’s. For all the missteps Merkel was broadly correct when she said, looking back over the first year of the pandemic: “In the grand scheme of things, nothing went wrong.”

The sheer effort that has gone into muddling through the crises of the past decade has led to a substantial backlog of unfinished business. Foreign diplomats have frequently complained of a strategic vacuum in Berlin during Merkel’s last term, particularly as the architecture of the European Union has come under strain. It will take more than tea with the Queen to repair relations with post-Brexit Britain. The chancellor has also had precious little to show for her indulgence of President Putin since the 2014 Minsk accords that temporarily cooled the conflict in Ukraine.

What will Angela Merkel’s legacy be?

Nor is Germany’s economy quite as sound as it might seem from the outside. Income inequality is growing. The country’s infrastructure is wearing thin after years of underinvestment and much of its bureaucracy still runs on paper. Germany’s growing demand for electricity and simultaneous retreat from atomic and coal power risk leaving it with an energy shortfall that cannot be fully plugged with renewables or Russian gas. Even the manufacturing sector, the pride of the German economy, is beginning to look a little wobbly. China will soon overtake the US as the country’s largest export market, leaving Berlin uncomfortably exposed to Beijing’s caprices. More disconcertingly, China last year surpassed Germany as the world’s biggest exporter of machine tools, historically a core German strength. In the coming years German manufacturers are likely to find themselves outcompeted by Chinese rivals in other fields where they once took their qualitative edge for granted, including cars.

Merkel is also leaving her party in a mess. Rival politicians in the CDU, such as Wolfgang Schäuble, Roland Koch and Friedrich Merz, have been neutered or sidelined. Under her tenure the party has moved so squarely into the centre that it is often no longer clear what it stands for. Nor have the chancellor’s loyal lieutenants had it easy: her search for a successor has repeatedly foundered as her protegées have struggled to emerge from her shadow and establish an independent profile. In the end the CDU turned to Armin Laschet. He may yet replace her but his unpopularity is a mark of the shortage of credible leaders in the party’s upper ranks. In the latest poll to ask voters whom they wanted as their next chancellor, Laschet came fourth.

Who will succeed Angela Merkel?

The next generation of gifted CDU politicians will have to pick their way through a minefield of backroom chicanery and unresolved ideological conflicts. Merkel’s true legacy will only become clear once the next chancellor picks up the pieces she has left behind. She has come to embody a form of steady, cool-headed, technocratic, consensus-based, anti-populist leadership that has stood as an antithesis to the convulsions rippling through other western countries over the past ten years. She has governed skilfully, if sometimes unimaginatively, with the grain of the times, and embodied Bismarck’s conception of politics as the art of the possible. Yet her defining instinct — to react to events rather than shaping them — has left a great many questions unanswered about the future of Germany, Europe and the world.

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